What mattered was that he shared the oppressive, antiquated view of marriage of so many Madrileñan men. She’d broken with her family once over their clamoring desire that she marry someone of their choosing. Fled to the United States for six years of college and graduate school. Gotten involved with an organization that would shock her parents to their core if they knew about it.
She’d come back to Madrileño three years ago. She would always come back to Madrileño. Her country was in her blood, a part of her heritage.
Sighing, Margarita set aside the crystal flute and turned to lean her elbows on the stone balustrade. As it always did, the spectacular collage of dark, jungle-covered mountains, white-washed buildings topped with red tile roofs and shimmering sea grabbed at her heart. The city of San Rico combined everything she loved and hated about her country…breathtaking beauty surrounded by feral wilderness; fabulous wealth wrenched from abject poverty; a cosmopolitan elite leading a population still struggling with illiteracy and centuries of oppression.
She was determined to help her country rise to the promise of the new millennium. Determined as well to eradicate the drug trade that had crippled its economy for years. That’s why she’d fought for her job with the Ministry of Economics. Why she’d joined SPEAR when she was approached as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Why she…
“You look especially beautiful in moonlight.”
The deep, chocolate-smooth voice raised goose bumps on Margarita’s bare shoulders and arms. She turned, and the sight of Carlos in white tie and black tux raised goose bumps everywhere else.
How did he do it? she wondered irritably. How could he look so devilishly handsome and so maddeningly complacent at the same time? And how did he manage to set her back up with a mere compliment? She wasn’t idiotic enough to wish he admired her for her mind instead of her looks, but an occasional acknowledgment of her intellect might have elevated his standing in her eyes considerably.
Her terse response lifted one of his brows. Strolling across the balcony, he joined her at the railing. At five-seven, Margarita was considered tall for a Madrileñan. Even so, she had to tilt her head to look into Carlos’s chiseled features.
“I like you in red,” he murmured. His gaze drifted down her throat to the swell of her breasts. “What there is of it.”
“I’m so glad.” Oozing syrupy sweetness, she smoothed her palms over the flame-colored sheath that plunged to a deep V in both front and back. “I thought of you when I chose this gown.”
A corner of his mouth turned up. “I’m sure you did. You take particular delight in taunting me, do you not, querida?”
The lazy half smile caused a distinct flutter in Margarita’s chest. As much as she’d like to, she couldn’t deny the man’s impact on her central nervous system. Carlos radiated masculinity. Smooth, controlled, extremely potent masculinity. Ignoring the treacherous skip in her pulse, she took issue with his casual endearment.
“I don’t suppose it would do any good to remind you that I am not now, nor will I ever be, your ‘darling’?”
“No good at all,” he replied easily. “Any more than it would do for me to remind you that ‘ever’ is a long time. I’m a patient man. Very patient.”
“Yes, I know.”
For some reason, the patience he took such pride in irritated Margarita more than anything else. If ever a man didn’t fit the English translation of his last name…
Steady, sober Carlos Caballero was as far from a cowboy as she’d come across in her thirty years. She’d never seen him lose his temper. Never witnessed a single crack in his iron discipline. She wanted passion from the man she married. Mindless, senseless, damn-the-consequences passion.
“You’re wasting your time, Carlos. I’ve told you repeatedly, I won’t marry someone who intends to shield his wife from everything nasty life has to offer.”
“It’s a man’s nature to want to protect his woman.”
Before she could take umbrage with that Neanderthal bit of philosophy, his wide shoulders lifted in a shrug.
“I can’t change who I am, Rita, any more than you can change who you are.”
“You don’t have the faintest idea of who I am,” she countered flatly.
None of them did. Her parents. Her friends. Her waspish little cousin Anna. Not one of them even faintly suspected that Margarita had been recruited by SPEAR while attending school in the States.
SPEAR—the acronym succinctly summed up its mission: Stealth, Perseverance, Endeavor, Attack and Rescue. The Washington, D.C. based organization was so secret that few members of the U.S. government and even fewer in the international community knew of its existence. Yet its tentacles reached deeply into domestic and foreign affairs, as well as into the business sector.
Although Margarita had undergone the same brutal training as SPEAR’s other agents, she’d been recruited for a specific mission and sent home right after her training. For three years, she’d quietly fed information on the Latin American drug trade to SPEAR. She took fierce pride in the fact that her efforts cut deeply into the illegal traffic that had almost destroyed her country’s economy.
“I know all I need to know about you, querida,” Carlos said quietly, pulling her attention to the discussion at hand. “We’d make a good match.”
“Why?” Her chin came up. “Because my uncle is the President of Madrileño and he wants you to run for the senate seat that’s just come open?”
She wasn’t sure, but she thought she caught a flicker of annoyance in his eyes. She felt a dart of triumph at having pierced his impenetrable calm, even for a second. The feeling evaporated when he moved closer. Only a step or two, just enough to crowd Margarita against the stone railing behind her.
“If I sought a wife for merely political purposes, I’d choose someone far more malleable.”
“Like Anna?” she inquired sweetly, all too aware of the heady combination of starched shirt and tangy aftershave she drew in with every breath.
“Like Anna,” he agreed. “But it’s you I want, Margarita.”
“Why?” she demanded again, annoyed anew by his stubborn refusal to accept defeat. “Why do you insist on pursuing a woman who doesn’t want you?”
The smile came back into his eyes. “Maybe because she’s yet to make me believe she doesn’t.”
“Madre di Dios!” Thoroughly exasperated, she shook her head. “Just what does it take to convince you?”
“I don’t know. Shall we put it to the test?”
Planting his hands on the railing on either side of her, Carlos leaned forward. Margarita understood his intent well before his mouth brushed hers. She could have stopped him with an icy command. Could have jerked her head away, or even taken him down with one of the many maneuvers she’d learned during SPEAR’s rigorous defensive countermeasures training. Instead, she kept her face impassive and her mouth tilted to his. What better way to demonstrate how unsuited they were than to let him see how little his kisses affected her?
She might have convinced both him and herself if he’d stopped after the first soft brush of his lips on hers. Unfortunately for her peace of mind, he didn’t. With a smooth coordination, he slid an arm around her waist and drew her close. She felt him against every inch of her body, as hard as tempered steel. His mouth came down on hers, more firmly this time, with a sensual deliberation that infuriated Margarita even as it set off tiny detonations under her skin.
Warmth flowed into her veins. Desire fisted in her belly. She could feel the studs in his shirt through the thin silk of her gown. Feel, too, the ripple of muscle in the arm locked around her waist. For an insane moment, she reveled in his strength and in the heat shooting through her. Only the fact that he’d stoked the fire so deliberately kept her from flinging her arms